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Minnesota models the partisan divide

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ
  • Star Tribune
  • July 7, 2011 - 6:33 AM

WASHINGTON

As Congress lurches toward a debt showdown that threatens to push the nation into default, Washington lawmakers can see a new model for gridlock in Minnesota's government shutdown.

Once seen as a model of good government, Minnesota -- along with neighboring Wisconsin -- increasingly is cited as the harbinger of a new era of partisan division and political paralysis. Analysts on both sides say ideological lines are hardening from St. Paul to Washington, reflecting the growing rift in a nation wracked by economic uncertainty.

"I can definitely see a trend happening," said Sara Imhof, Midwest director for the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan anti-deficit group. "If people in the Midwest can't get along, good Lord help them in Texas and Florida and all those other places where they're not always known for being friendly folk."

Much like the Washington standoff over raising the debt ceiling, Minnesota's budget impasse springs from partisan differences over budget cuts and tax hikes for the wealthy.

In an editorial titled "Antitax Extremism in Minnesota," the New York Times on Wednesday held up the seven-day-old government shutdown as a "sobering" reminder of what's at stake in Washington, faulting Minnesota Republicans for sheltering millionaires from tax hikes.

On the campaign trail, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said that Democrats' desire to spend is at the heart of the stalemates here and in Washington.

He has bragged that Minnesota's 2005 shutdown produced a "win" for him and that Republicans in Washington, faced with similar choices, should not shy away from similar action.

In Minnesota, as in Washington, policymakers have looked to neutral third parties to broker a deal. But Obama's bipartisan deficit reduction commission came largely to naught. In Minnesota, it remains uncertain whether results can be expected from an ad hoc budget group formed this week by former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson and former Vice President Walter Mondale, a Democrat.

'Unrelenting rigidity'

"I never remember a time when we had such deadlock, paralysis, almost unrelenting rigidity," said Mondale, a veteran of the epic civil rights battles of the 1960s. "We were able to work across the aisle and shape what I call American solutions to big issues."

Mondale said he's at a loss to explain what happened in the ensuing years. "Something happened to shatter that essential ability to compromise and build for the future," he said.

The roots, he said, reside not in Minnesota but in the increasingly polarized national political arena. "I'm worried that this fever that's seized Washington has been nationalized," he said.

Mondale traces part of that fever to a growing emphasis on conservative social issues even within the Tea Party, which got its impetus as a fiscal reform movement.

"Some of it began when we started converting political issues into religious questions," he said. "Once you get into that mode, compromise becomes a sin, not a necessity."

Minnesota Republican Jim Ramstad, who retired from Congress in 2009 with one of the most centrist voting records in the U.S. House, says the new era of political brinksmanship has little middle ground.

"Party allegiance trumps bipartisanship, and compromise is seen as heresy," he said.

Some point to an anemic economy which, only three years removed from a near financial collapse, has left Americans distrustful of large institutions -- particularly government.

"People are genuinely frightened, and it affects the political class as well," said Washington lobbyist Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota. "The response of many of them is to dig deeper into their ideological positions."

Minnesota's storied history as a progressive state, where Republicans and Democrats worked together, was the product of a bygone era, Weber said, marked by greater prosperity and faith in government. Weber is now an adviser to Pawlenty, whose presidential campaign has adopted the same no-new-taxes platform that defined his two terms as governor.

Sharpening Minnesota's budget showdown, Weber said, is the new political dynamic in St. Paul, where the first DFL governor in 20 years is up against the first Republican Legislature in 40.

Two parties came into office believing that they could, "at long last, enact their agenda." Unfortunately, he said, "they have to cope with each other."

In Washington, Obama and Senate Democrats are in a similar prolonged standoff with the Republican House, which has transformed the typically routine act of raising the debt ceiling into high-stakes drama.

"They're playing chicken with the debt ceiling," said U.S. Sen. Al Franken, who joined other Senate Democrats Wednesday in pressing for an end to what they called tax breaks for millionaires.

U.S. Rep. John Kline, a Minnesota Republican closely allied with Speaker John Boehner, said that any tax increase is dead on arrival.

"I know the mood of these guys in the House, and there is no appetite for raising taxes at all," he said. The showdown, he said, is "our opportunity to change the way the federal government spends money."

U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., says the dynamic is the same in Minnesota, with one major difference: "The catastrophic consequences of failure here are going to magnify what happened in Minnesota."

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.

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